Scotland golf for women: Highlands travelogue

Planning a golf trip to Scotland? Here’s your caddie: a series of travelogue posts for the average woman golf traveler. Part III of Scotland Golf for Women, the Highlands.

Image of author at Royal Dornoch

Dramatic skies at Royal Dornoch.

A golf trip to Scotland could end quite satisfactorily after three or four days in the Edinburgh area and three or four days in St Andrews. But if you came a long way and can spare a few more days away from your daily routine, now’s the time to rent a car and head for the Highlands.

We headed up the A90 toward our first destination, Cruden Bay, and marveled as the scenery grew greener and greener. When we got hungry, we found Molly’s, which must be the best restaurant in the coastal town of Stonehaven because it was never less than full the entire time we lunched. Then we decided to check in on Stonehaven Golf Club, precariously perched on the cliffs above the town. A cold wind forced us into our warm jackets and hats, and we walked along the drive atop the sea-leaning first and last few holes of this completely exposed 1888 design. It was ladies’ day, and the finishers looked to be the happiest of them. Inside, the View Restaurant overlooked it all. We weren’t up for 18 this day but otherwise would have been tempted to give Stonehaven a go. Next time.

CRUDEN BAY

Lodging

Cruden Bay Bed and Breakfast: We were lucky enough to be the guests of Ian and Lorraine Devenish, whose children have grown and gone off to live in the States. It’s my guess that operating the Cruden Bay Bed and Breakfast has helped fill their void for Ian, who obviously loves engaging guests and telling tales, which become hysterically funny when the Scot begins speaking Texan. This former hotel sits just across Aulton Road from the golf course, and several rooms have amazing views. We spent a lot of time gazing out at the course and the sea from our bay window, and wish we could have stayed longer. There’s no online reservation system here; you have to email Ian and Lorraine if you want to visit. Don’t be surprised if Ian telephones in response.

Golf

St. Olaf: When you spring for the $175 it now costs to play Cruden Bay, once a hidden gem but now a must-play for buddy trips to St. Andrews two hours away, you get a free round on this nine-holer in its center. We were smart to play ours the afternoon before we took on the big course, because even though it is only 2,355 yards from the forward tees, its routing and greens prepared us for the challenge ahead. It was great fun, and I’m guessing we could have gone around again without anyone putting a hand out for more money.
Cruden Bay Golf Club: We thought this was overpriced until we played it and saw that it rivals Pebble Beach in beauty, design and uniqueness — yet at not even a third of the price. There is no place else like Cruden Bay Golf Club, and I can see playing it for days at a time without boredom. At 5,340 yards from the newer green tees, it is more than enough for the average woman golfer, particularly since a wind is likely to be blowing hard. Ah, but from which direction? It rained a good bit the day we played, and without a caddie we struggled to navigate some of the holes. Yet, we both loved it! There are ladies’ toilets at the 8th that you pass by again at 16, and longer hitters could try the reds at 5,724 yards or the yellows at 5,862 yards. The 19th century course is all over the 21st century’s “tee it forward” movement. And after we dried off, we had one of our best meals of the trip in the clubhouse restaurant. Four and a half stars for women — losing a half star only because I wanted to buy something in the shop but it was clearly all about “him” here.

Other activities

Rainy weather kept us inside much of our time here, so we did not explore Slains Castle, supposedly the setting for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or visit other towns on the coast. We still loved Cruden Bay.

Inverness and Dornoch

Lodging

Craig Villa Guest House: Here we met another hostess who seemed born to tend to guests. Alison mysteriously appeared when we arrived and when we departed and disappeared when we did not need her. She clearly loves to cook — her breakfast room has a printed menu! — and advise residents on their plans for fun. We heard her working with other guests on their schedule for the week ahead. She had a collection of books useful for tourists — I particularly enjoyed the one about whisky — and her rooms have nice touches such as full-size toiletries in the bathroom. It was an easy walk from here to all of the in-town establishments and attractions, and only a mile from Inverness Golf Club. Our only qualm was having to park several blocks away, but we managed to drop off and pick up out front.

Golf

Boat of Garten: We signed up for an open tournament that we thought was Mixed Greensomes at the Boat. In this format, couples select the best tee shot and then alternate from there. Alas, it was Mixed Foursomes, meaning ladies got the odds and men the evens, alternate shot from there.This is a beautiful destination course that somewhat disappointed us for its conditions and its grueling up-and-down fairways. We were admittedly tired from Cruden Bay the day before, and from the nearly three-hour drive on narrow country roads. (Google, were you toying with us?) So maybe we’d try Boat of Garten again. We certainly loved the prices in the shop, food (and whisky) in the clubhouse, and hospitality of our companions. Four stars for women: The 5,093 forward tees look short on the card, but didn’t feel so short with the hills.
Image of author at Boat of Garten

Beautiful and grueling Boat of Garten.

Inverness Golf Club: The next day, we were entered in an open tournament for Mixed Greensomes at this club established in 1883. Inverness in Scotland reminded us of the Inverness near our home outside of Denver: It had a tree-filled, rolling design with only one or two blind holes. At 5,528 yards from the forward tees, it played a bit long in the damp weather, but I enjoyed Inverness very much and would play here again. Not to sound like a broken record, but here, too, the hospitality of the course staff and the locals is a big draw. It’s not the most scenic course, but I give it four stars for women for its playability and friendliness.
Image of author at Inverness Golf Club

Inverness Golf Club: There’s that rain jacket again!

Royal Dornoch: We sure saved the best for last, staying in this darling village with friends who are Dornoch members and hosted us at their special guest rate on these grounds where golf has been played since the 1400s! We could see why many legendary players fell in love with Royal Dornoch: The holes all have character, and the setting is magnificent. The sea is almost always within view but never in play, and if it’s windy you can be assured that for every hole the wind is against you there’ll be one where it’s with you. This was the only course we played twice. It and Cruden Bay are the two we hope to play again. More reasons for the five stars I give wonderfully conditioned Royal Dornoch for women: The relatively new green tees set at 5,359 yards make it playable for all, and I would never again bother with the 5,940-yard reds; the shop has beautiful clothes; the turn restroom is fresh and clean (and warm, a nice amenity on a chilly day); and a spectacular new clubhouse is in the works.
Image of Royal Dornoch landscape

Royal Dornoch, don’t go changin’, we love you just the way you are.

Other activities

We enjoyed our walks around vibrant Inverness and quaint Dornoch, and had our finest dinner of the trip overlooking the golf course at the Royal Golf Hotel. David Cowie at Dornoch’s Carnegie Whisky Cellars ensured that we were without regret indulging in a private regional whisky tasting on one rainy afternoon, and our therapists at the small but luxurious Aspen boutique day spa prodded and pampered our golf muscles on another. We felt so good, we stopped off the A9 at Blair Atholl to play nine the next afternoon on our way back to Edinburgh Airport.

What I’d do next time

I’d spend several days at Cruden Bay, and wait for a dry tee time at the course there while visiting some of the others in the area on less perfect days. And I’d spend several days in Dornoch for a replay, while this time catching the highly recommended falconry show at Dunrobin Castle and sampling other courses in the area. As we realized with our final stop at Blair Atholl, Scotland is full of wonderful courses that are much less expensive than — and just as much fun as — those on the tourist track.
A few final notes for women about golf in Scotland: Yes, we got a good bit of rain and mist. My skin and hair loved it! I didn’t mind it on the golf course, because we had excellent weathers. And the courses drain quickly. … After using standard push/pull trolleys the first couple of days, I usually opted for power trolleys. These are about the same price as carts are in the States. I used caddies at Jubilee and St. Andrews, and would recommend one at Cruden Bay. With tip, that cost comes to about $100 for one bag… Most courses had “buggies,” what we call carts, but usually only a few, reserved for those with doctors’ notes… Clubhouses in Scotland all have well equipped locker rooms for women, and often make lockers available for the day for visitors!… One way our trip exceeded our expectations: We loved the food!… May is a wonderful time to visit Scotland because the gorse is in bloom, so it’s nasty but beautiful. The rest of the year it’s just nasty!… I loved the words of the Rev. Susan Brown published in the yardage guide for the final hole of Royal Dornoch: “Think of the number of people in the last 400 years who have stood where you are. Regardless of your round, be grateful for the energy to play and for the company and the scenery.” Amen, Reverend!
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